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Week 4: Society

Tutor: Dr James Poskett

The nineteenth century was a period of major social change. It was also the age of social theory, from Marxism to Social Darwinism. This seminar examines the major role played by the sciences, both biological and mathematical, in shaping new understandings of what constitutes society. We explore the biological origins of sociology, as well as the social origins of biology. Ultimately, this seminar suggests that the biological and the social need to be studied as part of a common context. As Karl Marx himself wrote on reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), “although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view”.

Seminar Questions

  • How did nineteenth-century sciences transform the concept of ‘society’?
  • Was Darwin’s theory an expression of Victorian social values?
  • What are the differences and similarities between Darwin’s and Marx’s ideas?
  • How was evolutionary theory used to promote different visions of society around the world?

Essential Readings
Young, Robert, Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-55. Available online here.

Renwick, Chris, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), chapters 1 and 4, pp. 1-16 and pp. 45-69

Secord, James, ‘Global Darwin’, in William Brown and Andrew Fabian (eds), Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Further Readings
Collini, Stefan, ‘Political Theory and the ‘Science Of Society’ in Victorian Britain’, The Historical Journal, 23 (1980)

Francis, Mark, and Michael W. Taylor (eds), Herbert Spencer: Legacies (London: Routledge, 2014)

Glick, Thomas (ed.), The Comparative Reception of Darwinism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974)

Goldman, Lawrence, Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association 1857-1886 (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Goldman, Lawrence, ‘The Origins of British ‘Social Science’: Political Economy, Natural Science and Statistics, 1830–1835’, The Historical Journal, 26 (1983)

Hale, Piers, ‘Labor and the Human Relationship with Nature: The Naturalization of Politics in the Work of Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert George Wells, and William Morris’, Journal of the History of Biology, 36 (2003)

Hale, Piers, Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Lightman, Bernard, Global Spencerism: The Communication and Appropriation of a British Evolutionist (Leiden: Brill, 2015)

Lundgren, Frans, ‘The Politics of Participation: Francis Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory and the Making of Civic Selves’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 46 (2013)

Porter, Theodore M, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988)

Soffer, Reba, Ethics and Society in England: The Revolution in the Social Sciences, 1870-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

Taylor, Michael, Men Versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)